To watch just my question and the answers click here (5 minutes)
At a debate in London this week about the future of the European Union, I asked high-level politicians and senior academics:
- “How are we going to raise the level of debate in this country which is quite frankly appalling? It’s very vitriolic, it’s very emotional.
- “In America 150 years ago, they had to resolve similar differences through a civil war, which we don’t want in Europe. We’re only going to resolve this hopefully through evolution, and that will only come about by good debates that we’ve got here, but we haven’t seen that across the country.
- “We can’t even agree on some of the basic facts: UKIP claim that 75% of our laws originate from Brussels; the House of Commons Library says it’s only about 10%. We’ve got to get the facts right before we can debate them.”
Ex- Prime Minister of Belgium, Guy Verhofstadt, who is now an MEP and Leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in Europe, was first to respond:
“We’ve already had our civil wars a long time ago: more than a thousand years of civil wars on the European continent. The big difference is that the US started as a confederation; then they made the federal state in 1785, that was Philadelphia. Then they created the ‘Hamilton moment’: the finances of this federation by creating treasury certificates; then they created a common treasury, and only after that the Coinage Act, which was the basis for the introduction of the dollar.
“What we have done in Europe, on the continent, is quite the opposite; we were far more intelligent than the Americans. We started with the currency, and then we said, ‘Oh shit! We don’t have this, we don’t have that! We don’t have an economic union; we don’t have a banking union; fiscal union; political union, which is absolutely needed!’
“So if we have to make a comparison with America, we should not take the civil war, because we had these already for over 1,000 years in Europe, but (we should compare) the rational – rational - steps that the Americans took when they integrated their continent..”
Looking slightly alarmed, Benedicte Paviot, UK Correspondent of France 24 and moderator for this debate, said:
“Apologies if anybody was offended by the language.”
Responded Mr Verhofstadt:
“You don’t use that word?”
Said Ms Paviot emphatically:
“I don’t, no!”
The microphone was then passed to MEP Martin Callanan, Leader of the European Conservatives & Reformists:
- “The debate on Europe, and in inverted commas, ‘facts’: well you’re dealing with politics here, different politicians will use different facts to suit themselves.
- “I saw a UKIP leaflet put out for the local election which informed me that on the first of January next year, 26 million Bulgarians and Romanians were going to arrive in the UK. That’s clearly not true.
- “But when you go onto the issue of what percentage of our laws are dictated by Brussels, well it depends how you define percentage. Is one statutory instrument of one line long the same as one Act of Parliament? Are you looking at lines of legislation, quantities of Acts, quantities of Directives? You get a different answer depending on what measure you use.
- “Bundestag has done a study on it, the House of Commons Library has done studies on it, and you get different answers from both, the Norwegians I think have done a third study. It really is an open ended question.
- “With regard to the level of debate, I think there there is actually a lot of debates on Europe in the UK. All the Sunday newspapers and the daily newspapers….”
Ms Paviot interrupted:
- “There’s a lot of debate, I think the gentleman acknowledged that, but there’s an awful lot of non-fact..”
Mr Callanan bypassed the interruption and continued:
- “When it comes to a referendum, they’ll be huge campaigns on both sides, and they’ll be an awful lot of heat, probably not much light, but they’ll be an awful lot of information, an awful lot of, inverted commas, ‘facts’ thrown at people, but this is politics, you believe what you choose to believe..”
Ms Paviot countered:
- “Yes, but it would be nice if it actually started with facts..”
Looking puzzled, Mr Callanan asked:
- “Can you define what is a fact and what isn’t a fact?”
Looking incredulous Ms Paviot replied:
- “Well I think that’s pretty…”
She held up her hand to her face:
- “This is a hand and it has five fingers.”
[Another fact: Mr Callanan was definitely wearing socks coloured purple... or were they?]
Next Professor Simon Hix asked for the microphone. He’s head of the department of government at the LSE:
- “I think there’s plenty of evidence across Europe that when there have been referendums on European issues you see a step change in the public’s understanding of the EU.”
Ms Paviot interjected:
- “In an article you made a very good point about comparing another country, Denmark, who joined in the same year, and thanks to numerous referendums, it has helped the population, I believe, engage…”
Professor Hix continued:
- “Not just Denmark, Ireland, you probably know the same from the experience of the referendums in France.
- “Referendums force the public, force the politicians, force the media to engage and address all these issues directly with the public and with the constituents, and there are public information campaigns. This is why I think it’s important to have a referendum, so we will have a step change in public understanding and public debate about the role of Britain in Europe.”
Another questioner from the audience got to the nub of the issue and asked Mr Martin Callanan, Conservative MEP:
- “If there was a referendum today, would you vote in or out?”
Ms Paviot repeated the question:
- “In out, Martin?”
A nervous chuckle from Mr Callanan:
- “He’s asking me about a question that’s not going to happen. If a referendum is called, I will consider my options.”
The questioner wasn’t satisfied:
- “It’s a very simple question; it’s a referendum today, in or out? I know how I would vote, probably most people here know how they would vote.”
Mr Callanan replied:
- “I don’t want to answer it…”
So there you have it:
- According to Belgium’s ex prime minister, Guy Verhofstadt, Europe had civil wars before America, but the USA got it right by becoming a federation before creating their single currency.
- According to Conservative MEP Martin Callanan, when it comes to politics and Europe, a fact is not necessarily a fact. Yes, he wants a referendum, but no, he couldn’t say now, yes or no, whether the UK should stay in the EU.
- And according to Professor Simon Hix we need a referendum so the public will understand more about the European Union.
Where will the debate go from here?
Watch the video: ‘The UK EU debate: where next?’ – 5 minutes
Read other articles by Jon Danzig: